A letter for her (XXIX) – I’m not scared today

4:20 PM | 8 April 2020


The last few letters that I wrote to you were all written in a hurry, like a quick update to my best friend so I can feel her around. It reminds me of how we draw back the curtains on a sunny day to let the sunlight in without letting the room heat up.

It’s going alright. It’s going okay.

When we wake up from a long, long sleep – literally – there’s a fresh glow on the face that prepares us for what is to come – the squabbles of the day, the empty milk bottle in the fridge, another terrorising shift in the middle of human bodies breathing in money. A little bit of that and a lot of our own misgivings, our own trials being judged by our God. So there was that finally. It’s a good start, you’d say. At least enough to let one stand up again.

What’s the point of this all anyway? What’s the point of being defeated in a battle that was never mine?

There’s a long, long journey lying ahead in the count of whatever miles we have left. And I do not want to sin by wasting them. What answer will my soul have when I stand in front of Him then? Your resilience taught us to stand firm on our faith – the faith that asks us to believe in His powers, in His wisdom, in His mercy – and not give up. The last six months of your life ask me to honour that. How can I turn away now? I’ve come so far on this journey and on the journey of my heart and soul. I’ve lost the way to go back. There are no sign-posts behind, there’s nothing; some people take away all of us when they go. You know that.

In a parallel world, if little fn was stepping on these same pebbles, falling and hurting herself, giving up, crying and praying, what would have I done? I thought long and hard about this, Nani Jaan.
I’d have told her to stand up for herself. Finding happiness within ourselves is pretty much like laughing at the balloon you just threw in the air. Or the thorny rose you plucked from the garden – the gardener snoring blissfully – to hide in your ‘Dear Diary’.
I’ll fight everything – the injustices, the cruelty of this world – and I’ll also pick up the shattered glass pieces that have pierced the gentleness of what I so freely and happily gave. But with the smile of my soul, the faith that you had, and the miracle of prayers. And some forgiveness. That’s going to be hard. But I shall try because I want to be true to the promises I’ve made.
Do you think I can do that? Do you think you are still proud of me?

It’s so quiet in here. So very quiet. The quiet dripping of the water from a broken tap. The childhood memory of the meyna chirping at 3 PM in the afternoon, only the sun keeping it company as young kids slept before a daily ritual of tea and Gluco biscuits. The sharpening of the pencils before starting off the exam paper as small hands brushed the shavings underneath the desk drawers. The lovely, lovely scent of baby powder as a new born slept peacefully – curtains drawn, innocence and happiness frolicking in the air – and grown ups looked down at it in awe and envy.
It’s so quiet in here. So very quiet.

I’m not scared today. Maybe because I’m your granddaughter. Maybe because I’m the daughter of a woman who sends out her heart everyday when she drops me off at the hospital, duas and “Beta, apna bohat khayal rakhna!” making the seconds go by. Maybe because I come from a generation of women whose strength and courage in the face of life’s challenges have always, always won. Women who have truly been women, God’s gentlest, strongest creations. So now I’m not scared of anything anymore. Because you weren’t either.
And because she isn’t, either.
And Insha’Allah, she won’t be, either.

A letter for her (III) – this Big Black Car

Dearest Nani Jaan,

They always remind me of you, these jasmine flowers. Every morning, just as the sky is lit with the first rays of sunlight, and the birds come out of their nests, and one begins to feel the clouds painting an image on the sky, you would pluck the jasmine flowers from their shrub. With the grace of a queen, you would sew them on ears, your heart fresh with love for all and Him.

I love these jasmines, too!

It’s getting scarier, this Big Black Car. And as we drive forward, we’re beginning to see all that was lost along the way. I’m reminded of the stubborn child who will want that toy again from his favourite toy-shop but he won’t ask for it because he’s already broken the same one before. Does that make sense to you? It’s getting even more scary, this ride on the Big Black Car. Amongst the crowd of people, the Great Wall riding on this Car is all strong and sturdy. But on a deserted, dark road leading to the depths of the forest, it scares us because it’s dark, and forests are supposed to be haunted by ghost stories, isn’t it?

So in our silence lives our locution, that’s what we’ve decided, haven’t we?

And so every time I see you, it’s a new song, a new smile for my heart. How do you always know what to say to me? How do you always know that it’s only the firm grasp of your weak hands holding on to mine as I prepare to leave that can pass on a lovely, magical legacy to the mystified hunter that is my heart?

And then when you spin magic with the sacred words that you breathe your prayers into when hand in hand we enjoy our Surah Rehman, you beautifully, effortlessly teach us – teach me – how to love God.

“Stay happy, stay blessed”. Amen. “Live long. Live happy”. Amen, yes!

Miss you!

Arfa.

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Photo credits: Maham Jawaid Ahmed

yellow butterflies

And whether you are a rebellious twelve-year-old or an ambitious twenty-four or a tired forty-two – or even a bored eighty – there’s just one simple pleasure in life: having something to look forward to. Anticipation, as they say.

A new funky backpack. That new glitzy ring from the local marketplace. Peaceful surrender to ‘Fragrance of Guava – Conversations with Gabriel Garçia Marquez’ in the comforting company of some good ol’ ginger ale. Friendly banter with your cousins just to see grandma smile as you race with her to finish her mango shake. The stable vitals of a very sick loved one. New teacups and intricate henna patterns on soft palms. The early morning call to prayer that jingles gently in the background as you talk to the meyna. Old friends, new letters, yellow butterflies. Even the scary uncertainty that slowly, turbulently eases into a patient wait for the exciting surprise promised by “Verily, with every difficulty there is relief”. (Quran. 94:5)

These are all little grains in the sand that the blue of the sea prostrates on; my little galaxies in the mystery of the thought of infinite, the seconds before happiness, the spring before the favourite season. So this is also what happiness looks like.
I wonder what took me so long…

Photo credits: https://www.instagram.com/sabsescape/

A letter for her (II) – it’s getting quieter in here

Dearest *Nani Jaan,

You didn’t wish me ‘Eid Mubarak’. You didn’t get up to tell me how my dress looked. You didn’t even chide me for not getting henna on my hands this time even though I love it. Why?
You didn’t lovingly order us to pile our plates with food. So I didn’t. I just sat by you not wondering why Eid didn’t seem like Eid.

It’s getting quieter in here, you know.

There are highs and lows. I have raged and fought with God. I have demanded justice. There was no answer but I know it will come. I just don’t want those empty days to return. Can you possibly come back? Giving up isn’t easy and who would know that better than you? Because this silence that is becoming my new best friend is haunted by guilt.

Regrets are not easy to live with, Nani Jaan. And every time I bend down to move you, every time my own hands touch yours as I tie the damned sphygmomanometer cuff around your bony arm, every time I glance at your sunken cheeks, I find myself beaten up by guilt and regret. And then I run away from myself; my feet falter with the weakness of my heart, my tongue begging Him for help. And then you know what happened? One such moonlit night brought me the answers I had never expected.
Life is so, so strange.
It doesn’t seem fair that through this I’m seeking the mercy that I need, that through this will come my relief, that this is my way out.
It’s so true, Nani Jaan, that human intelligence is bound within the first degree of imprisonment; no matter how many nanoseconds we discover, no matter how many moons we land on, no matter what great genetic engineers we become, we are always helpless in front of His plans. Always.
I wonder if introspection and retrospection are His favourite ‘-tions’? Because they steer us towards His love, and through our own follies and short-comings, we discover His Being, and then with shaking hearts and hopeful souls we go Home to Him.

We go Home to Him.
We go Home to Him.

This doesn’t seem fair. But then who am I to decide that? A small collection of cells that is nothing without His beautiful Will. Absolutely nothing. And I know that when I see how marvellously my own plans fail and how wise are His.

Remember several of those sunny afternoons when we would ask you if you’re hungry? You’d say, “No. God has filled my stomach. I don’t feel hungry. I’m content. Thank God”.
And of course, you don’t. The hypothalamus in your brain has taken care of that. See. I found my answer. Why does that always happen? Why do I find the how to the why as soon as the when happens? Because it’s all a matter of perspective, you’d say, and it all goes back to Him.

This is just so crazy.

You called me your friend, your ‘saheli’. You said that because your friends left, you found me.
“Meri saheliyaan chali gaeeyn tou yeh saheli aagaee”.
Yes, Nani Jaan. One friendship for another. Maybe this is the meezan that God lovingly spoke about, isn’t it?

It really is getting quieter in here. And I miss a lot of a lot of things. Thank you for not giving up. Not yet.

Love,

Your Arfu.

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*Nani Jaan: maternal grandmother

yeh sab tumhara karam hai Aaqa, k baat abb tak bani hoee hai

Huddled conveniently between memes and celebrity pictures, your noisy Facebook newsfeed often carries ‘miracle stories’ that talk about how the zam-zam water cured someone, or some such similar thing. And you smile without as much of a thought and you move on because you can’t be bothered to research the ‘how‘ of the science that may have caused it. I was guilty of the same until a very recent personal experience reminded me of my own words: “It’s like the workings of a car – how you put in the key, start the ignition and the engine starts working, you pull the hand-break and the gear and turn the steering wheel and the car goes in motion. You’re doing these acts because that’s how this car is supposed to work, otherwise, it won’t move forward and you’ll be stuck in the same place”.

It was Saturday night. Kaplan opthalmology and I snuggled together by my ailing maternal grandmother’s bedside. With one eye on the image of the normal retina on the screen of the laptop, I kept glancing at the frail figure sleeping next to me, looking out for the number of breaths that she was adding to those of her children and grandchildren, with her own. Her medicine time was lapping by so we decided to disturb what seemed like her sweet slumber. But she refused to wake up; she had – in very simple words – fainted.

We monitored her vitals: no red flags at all. We contacted her doctor: “maintain her oxygen saturatuon and keep talking to her, reassure her”. Check.

As we did that, I – either out of desperation to see my favourite lady talking or out of an unwavering faith in the power of our unseen God – played Surah Rehman on my retiring phone. What followed was surreal enough to make our eyes hug tears of incredulity, and relief, and gratitude. Within minutes, her previously unresponsive eyes began to flutter. A few more grains of the hour-glass later, her previously stiff jaw loosened and her mouth began to move till she was loud enough for every person in the room to hear.

“She’s saying something!”

“She is. She’s saying ‘Fabiayyi alai rabbikuma tukaththibani’!“

Recent studies have strongly suggested that listening to the Holy Quran causes the release of the neurotransmitter (a chemical released by the nerve cells), dopamine, to send signals to other nerve cells. Dopamine has a significant role in reward-motivated behaviour, also leading to pain reduction and helping individuals recover from stroke or other injuries. It aids in the betterment of cognitive skills, improving endurance and symptoms of dementia. There have also been studies showing that listening to Quran recitation can generate alpha wave, and can be more helpful in relaxing a person as compared to resting and listening to slow and hard rock music.

And so that’s how the car works, that’s how we work!
Because “yeh sab tumhara karam hai Aaqa, ke baat ab tak bani hui hai!”
(O beloved Lord! All is Your grace that my affairs continue to prosper, that my affairs continue to advance!)

And that’s how much she loved her Lord – gentle whispers from His scripture had the very calming effect that her neurons were craving for.

Life – despite its fragility and hues of sadness – can be very beautiful if you choose to listen to the notes of love, (and miracles) and hope dancing within the songs promising you the Everlasting, courting your patience, bejewelling your strength.

I love the sunrise. Don’t you?

Photo Credits: Omama Batool

and there is much peace in this chaos here

My surgery and orthopaedic rotation ended two weeks ago; sadly, it was not a very enjoyable experience at the time, owing to, perhaps, the unfortunate fact that I was trying to juggle too much all at once.

What I did learn in time, however, was to accept the gnawing, glaring fact that one must not – or ever – wait for the hard times to pass to wait to laugh, because life – married faithfully to time – will otherwise unscrupulously leave you behind, trapped in the same old shell of you, a you that does not know of uncomfortable growth, and unchartered terrains, and the extraordinary surprise of discovering that you certainly can live without what you thought was your very own gravity.

I learnt that often stressful situations bring out the best in you, that the love of and for God is delightfully selfless, that unconditional gratitude will inspire you beyond the pretentiousness of the tangibility of this world; that wrapped up as a heartfelt prayer, you always have something to give to another mortal. And during these prolonged moments of self-discovery, I also learnt that a mother’s love is an enigma you can never solve, an antidote to all your aches, teaching you to walk down the magnificent isle of peace, away from the strangling emotion of hate.

And all of those lessons are pretty useful, you know? Because as my tachycardia races against the bradycardia of a loved one, as my blooming youth bows down to the frailty of old age, as my present self – inspired by a grandmother whose hands are forever looking for mine, whose life is dominated by remnants of her past and not a map for a tomorrow – hopes for a future dedicated to geriatric medicine, as I find myself being released from the shackles of emotional dependency, as I find myself growing – spiritually, emotionally – to the velocity of what I am meant to be, I find myself finally finding meaning in suffering, beauty in sorrow, gratitude in hardships, smiles in tears, forgiveness in hate, and most importantly, life in death.

So healing a broken spirit and giving me a heart transplant, surgery and allied led me to surrender my soul to where it truly belongs. And there is much peace in this chaos here.

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My soft flower 

When I was a kid, ‘Nani ka ghar’ signified days of endless games and fun and delicious food made with grandmother-love, sprinkling exciting joy over the time we cousins would spend together.

Nani Jan’s house is big, her heart bigger.

Her love for animals fascinated all of us. Her parrots knew our names – even the nursery rhymes that I taught my younger cousins – and her little chicks came in all colours – pink, yellow, green.

Time flew by like it always does; like it has to. And now years later, when the family is none less than a small army that she proudly looks at, the roles have reversed.

Who knew that a couple of roosters and their morning ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ would blow into her a new spirit – her old spirit – and she would lovingly resume her role as the Lady of the Family.

 

A soft flower 

Fighting the dusty wind, 

She stands strong,

Living, loving.